Friday, March 6, 2009

Mass shooting in Cleveland challenges the senses .. and the vocabulary

Standing on West 89th Street last night in Cleveland, I really struggled to find the right words to describe it. To describe the emotion of the moment while wrapping the facts so that viewers understood the bottom line -- a manhunt was underway for a killer.

Journalists, especially broadcast journalists, use words like "tragic", "brutal", and "horrific" so often that when a story with six people shot, including murdered children, words like those don't seem to strong enough.

What I saw and felt were two extremes. Complete silence in some parts of the neighborhood where residents, relatives, and first responders all seemed to be coping with the initial shock of a family disaster. Meanwhile, other pockets of the street were painful as a new relative or close friends showed up every few minutes .. and then began to wail .. all of it right in front of the mob of media.

What's O.K. to record? What's not? What's legally O.K. to record but ethically a no-non? Is it ever O.K. to hit the red button on someone's devastation?

I had several flashbacks while I was out there last night .. both to my time in the war ... and to my own brother's murder in 1984. The feeling of a warm night, mass tension, helicopters circling, and the constant presence of heavily-armed warriors -- in this case police officers -- who were focused on a mission took me right back to the desert. Meanwhile, the pain and shock that relatives and friends were enduring standing in a dark street .. while surrounded by on-lookers, neighbors, and reporters ... certainly had me contrasting this night with the relatives, friends, and neighbors who stood outside a North Akron house in 1984 as the police and coroner handled the shooting that claimed my brother.

As the scene developed last night, a fellow journalist told me that he "hoped that bastard gets what's coming to him" when talking about Devon Crawford, the suspect who was now on the run. Many of us who were there last night have children, so to cover an event where the loss of life includes kids affects us. It should affect us, shouldn't it?

Just before my 11 p.m. liveshot, a man approached me to ask if I knew the names of the victims. He said that he had just heard about Crawford being on the run and that Crawford had recently married his daughter. He must have thought I was a detective (in my long black coat and tie, I'm often confused for a detective at crime scenes) and he thought I'd have the info. I told him he probably needed to head down the street to the officers to get the info he needed. About 45 minutes later, he came back and told us that his daughter and grandchildren were dead and that he was headed to the hospital for a grandson who survived. He was calm and composed .. still very not believing that this was real.

So .. weighing it all .. my mind raced. How do I find the words for a TV liveshot? How do I find the right way to explain to the viewers what's happened. Do I begin with the death toll? or the manhunt? Do I focus on details about the victims? or the suspect?

A few minutes before ER ended on NBC, I really didn't know what I was going to say when Romona tossed out to me to start the 11 p.m. broadcast. I had a few bullet points of the basic facts, but phrasing it was a whole different challenge. Our two-minute segment went well, but I probably couldn't do it again if I tried -- at least not in the same way.

And when the 11 p.m. news ended ... and I'd done my job .. I wish I could tell you that I felt some level of satisfaction, because I didn't. I just felt numb. I guess the one thing I've learned in this business is that no matter how good or bad of a job I do in telling a one-night story like this, someone else is beginning the lifetime journey of making sense of this overwhelming loss.


Jill said...

This is a fantastic post, Eric. Thank you for caring so much about what you do, and the people involved at each stage of that.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see the broadcast last night, but I can certainly understand everything you were thinking about how you were going to present the story. It's a sad, sad situation. I'm sure it's hard to keep your compusure with all that you were witnessing last night.

Anonymous said...

Dear Eric, You did a great job - and when and if you don't have those feelings of caring for the victims and their families anymore - you will know it is time to move on.
Thank you for sharing your story.